An exploration of humans’ role as “curators of the planet that we have come to dominate.”
Transforming plants and animals for our own benefit began in prehistoric times, according to this expert, often unsettling account of this transformation’s progress, which accelerated after World War II and will soon reach warp speed with advances that continue to build on those from the past decade. Science writer Pilcher, whose previous book was about de-extinction, writes that it began with the dog, domesticated tens of thousands of years ago. This was accomplished by simple Darwinian natural selection: The most amiable wolves prospered by associating with humans, produced far more offspring than their unfriendly peers, and they now vastly outnumber them. Similarly, by selecting only desirable qualities, our ancestors converted other flora and fauna to more productive crops and domestic animals. After scientists learned the secrets of DNA in the mid-20th century, genetic modification worked its wonders so well that today, there is enough food to feed the world—a goal widely considered impossible 50 years ago. Readers who forget the downside to ordering the Earth for our convenience will squirm as Pilcher chronicles how the world’s jungles are being cleared to grow food mostly intended to feed livestock, which make up 60% of the planet’s large land animals. Humans come next at 36%. Wildlife brings up the rear, at 4% and dwindling. Chickens are by far the most common bird. We eat more than 65 billion (!) each year, and their massive bone remains will lead future paleontologists to believe that chickens were the 21st-century’s dominant life form. Concluding on an upbeat but only mildly uplifting note, Pilcher recounts successful efforts to restore barren countryside to genuine wilderness and the rescue of the cute, flightless New Zealand kakapo from extinction.
An impressive rendering of the disturbing history of human tinkering with nature.